Ross Seeks Support For Television Freedom Act Bill

Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) has revived his push for a bill that would allow satellite and cable companies to import adjacent-market local TV network affiliate stations into so-called split markets, though only to the “orphan” counties within those markets, and only where retransmission consent was obtained, where possible.

In a letter sent to his House colleagues Friday (July 10) seeking co-sponsor, Ross touts his Television Freedom Act as an opportunity to "help your constituents receive their local channels once and for all."

The bill, which a source said Ross is looking to reintroduce "in the near term," is more narrow than his 2007 version. Nevertheless, it will still run into pushback from broadcasters, who say such a change could cost them hundreds of millions of dollars. They argue that allowing multichannel video providers to import local TV network affiliated stations from adjacent, in-state markets into markets that cross state lines will provide duplicative programming that adversely impacts exclusivity deals and retransmission consent negotiations.

Ross and satellite operators argue that it is simply giving local viewers access to their local stations denied by a gerrymandered DMA system. They also counter that the exclusivity argument is weakened by the availablity of most TV shows worldwide at the click of a mouse.

DirecTV for one, gave the Ross effort a shout-out Friday.

"In the 2004 Satellite Home Viewer Act consumers in southern Vermont and a handful of other DMAs [Nielsen Designated Market Areas] were granted access to in-state local stations - all of the station not just the 6 o'clock news," said DirecTV government affairs VP, Andrew Reinsdorf. "Consumers, broadcasters and pay TV providers have all benefited. Rep. Ross's bill seeks to offer these same benefits and choices to all Americans who live in orphan counties. We strongly support the Ross bill."

In the 2007 version of the bill, stations could be imported across state lines into the entire adjacent market. In this version, only the so-called "adjecent underserved counties" where the market crosses the state line will get the in-state imports.

Other new elements of the bill, according to Ross bullet points:

"The bill now is limited to only those counties where subscribers can't get home-state news, sports, and entertainment.

"It encourages MVPDs to carry both local and adjacent stations, but requires local service first.

"It requires MVPDs to negotiate retransmission consent agreements for carriage in adjacent underserved counties – except where the station is legally unable to give such consent.

"It clarifies that cable operators, like satellite operators, can carry such stations on a royalty-free basis. "

Broadcasters succeeded last month in keeping any split-market amendments from being added to the markup of the Satellite Home Viewer Extension and Reuthorization Act (SHVERA), which will be the vehicle for Ross' bill if he gained sufficient support.

At that hearing, House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-VA) said he was willing to talk about the issue further and hoped for a resolution. But he did not push the issue and ranking member Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) said that he "agree[d] with leaving it out of the bill at this time." The bill needs to pass by year's end because if it doesn't, the blanket license for satellite carriage of network distant signals expires.

But Ross says it is time to fix the split: "Satellite and cable subscribers should not be denied the benefits of choosing in-state stations that they prefer and need simply because of an outdated law," he said.

Below is a copy of the letter:

Dear Colleague:

Across our nation, many satellite and cable customers do not receive local channels from their home state.  Hundreds of thousands of cable and satellite subscribers cannot receive information about their state’s news, government, elections, weather, and sports!  That is why I have reintroduced the Local Television Freedom Act of 2009.

Current law specifies that television broadcast stations be transmitted primarily within their DMAs, which are assigned by the Nielsen Media Research Company.  However, a great many of the DMA boundaries cross state lines, which means that millions of subscribers are left watching the local channels of their neighboring state. The Local Television Freedom Act will give satellite and cable companies the ability to provide subscribers not only the local channels within their DMA, but also the local channels of an adjacent in-state DMA, which can provide news and information from subscribers’ home states.  This will give customers who live near a state’s border the option to receive local channels from their home state and let them watch their local news, weather, and sports for the first time!

Today, some of the most popular television shows are available online across the globe to anyone with an internet connection.  Furthermore, technologies such as Slingbox allow consumers with a broadband connection to watch their home TV stations or channels anywhere in the world.  However, under our current satellite and cable laws, many consumers still cannot simply receive the local channels of the state in which they live and work!

I believe that everyone who wishes to receive the local channels from their home state should have the option to do so. Satellite and cable subscribers should not be denied the benefits of choosing in-state stations that they prefer and need simply because of an outdated law.  The Local Television Freedom Act of 2009 will bring the DMA system and the Satellite Home Viewer Act into the 21st century.  In turn, consumers will benefit from more relevant choices in TV viewing and greater content localism.

The Local Television Freedom Act of 2009 is based largely on the Television Freedom Act of 2007, a bill we introduced two years ago.  I have modified the bill, however, based on input from our colleagues, broadcasters, and other stakeholders.  The bill now applies only in those so-called “orphan counties” in which viewers cannot receive in-state local programming.  Cable and satellite companies will also now have to obtain retransmission consent of broadcasters before providing service under the bill.

Therefore, I ask you again to join me in giving satellite and cable providers the means to offer in-state local channels to everyone.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.